China Military Online reports that the People’s Liberation Army will carry out live-fire drills in the East China Sea from July 29 to August 2. In preparation for the drills, the Chinese government issued a navigation notice banning maritime vessels from entering an area of the East China Sea bordering southeastern Zhejiang province, roughly 200 kilometers north of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. A Xinhua report reposted by China’s Ministry of Defense described the exercises as “routine training.”
Meanwhile, China is also holding military drills in the south. Bloomberg reports that China is “holding live-fire drills” in the Gulf of Tonkin. Though the drills are reportedly part of an annual exercise, the scope of this year’s exercises is larger than previous versions. Ni Lexiong, a defense researcher at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told South China Morning Post that such large drills in China’s eastern coastal region were uncommon, and likely intended as a warning to Japan.
The reports from the Ministry of Defense come after media outlets in China speculated that military drills were causing widespread flight cancellations and delays in southern airports. South China Morning Post reports that 12 airports, from Qingdao in the northeast to Ningbo in the southeast, were experiencing major delays and cancellations due to “high-frequency drills of another user.” The widespread and long-lasting nature of the flight disruptions suggested a major military exercise, SCMP said.
However, China’s Ministry of Defense said that military exercises “are not the major factor behind recent delays,” blaming stormy weather instead. When announcing the upcoming exercises to be held off the southeast coast, the ministry promised that it would work “to minimize the exercise’s impact on civil flights.”
Xi Jinping has called on China’s military to increase its battle-readiness as part of a military modernization program. These drills appear to be part of this effort; the Ministry of Defense described them as “important for testing combat capability and improving real-combat training levels and military preparation.” A report in China Daily cites a military captain as saying that military exercises have become “more practical” in response to a March edict from the Central Military Commission. As such, the larger scope of this year’s drills might not be intended as a warning, but rather be an attempt to increase the complexity of the drills (including the need for coordination among different branches of the service) to better simulate war conditions.